The Triumphant Return of the Red Marvel
by Will Shetterly
“I am sorry,” the woman said, as he expected and feared she would. “The shelter is full.”
He nodded to reassure her. She was a kind woman. She was as much a prisoner in this world as he. “There are other places,” he lied, and he turned, knowing he could not find any place to take him in tonight.
“Wait,” she said, and handed him a card. “Try here.”
“They’ve got cots and blankets. On such a cold night—”
He chuckled, though he was not sure if he did that for her or himself. “You call this cold? In Minnesota, we would cut a hole in the ice and jump in just to cool off on such a pleasant evening.”
She smiled, making him feel young again. He wished he could tell her about the time he had fought the Skyscraper Men, constantly retreating northward until they froze within yards of the North Pole, but he knew she thought he was an addled old man, and he did not want her to worry even more about him.
She said, “I wish someone could drive you—”
“If—” he said, starting to ask if a bed was being held in reserve in case a woman or a child needed it, and whether he could sleep there if he promised to leave it the moment anyone showed.
“No, it’s good.” He smiled despite his weariness and the old pain in his hip. If there was a way he could stay, she would have told him. He was so tired, and the night was so cold, but he would not beg for a place that someone weaker might need. Sometimes he wondered if his nemesis had a way to watch him here. If so, the Ticker Tape Man would know that he might trap him, but he could not crush his spirit.
Stepping back into the night, he thought, Chicago’s ice demons are as formidable as any the Mad Mogul sent against me. The cathedral was two miles away. In the universe where he belonged, he could have flown that far in the time it took a child to cry, “Help!”
The wind was behind him. That was a mercy. He did not know how cold it was. That was another mercy. What more could anyone want than two mercies? He squeezed his fists together in his mittens, plunged them into the pockets of his filthy coat, and began to march. He had once hiked halfway around the Burning Planet to reach a Transdimensional Taxi Stop. Walking a few blocks through a bitter Illinois night should be easy.
With each step, his hands and his feet grew more numb, and his hip hurt more. He could bear that. What hurt most was what his hip reminded him of, the night in the car with his wife and his dog beside him, and his pregnant daughter and her husband in the front seat. He knew what his enemy based the false memory on. When the Comrades of Justice—he and the Blue Amazon and Laika the CosmoDog and Universal Girl and Mr. Sandman—were returning from Jupiter in Mr. Sandman’s Dream Mobile, a comet sent by the Tyrannosaur Tycoon had crashed into them. But in the true world, he and Laika had flown the Dream Mobile home, and then he and the Comrades had defeated the Tycoon once again. In this false world of his foe’s making, the Corolla holding everyone he loved had been hit by a drunken driver, and he alone survived.
He did not count the blocks as he trudged down the cold, empty streets, so he did not know how far he had gone when he slipped and fell. He lay on the icy sidewalk for a long moment, assessing his pain and wondering if he should sleep there. When Queen Kapital froze him solid for a week, he had thawed as easily as waking from a nap.
But without his powers, frostbite was inevitable. Once the Purple Plutocrat had dropped a mountain on top of him, and even he had doubted that he could rise until the sound of a baby crying for aid had made him do what he must. Now he could hear nothing but the wind. Without another person’s need to inspire him, standing was harder, but still he stood and walked on.
He had never thought he was a hero. With great power, who wouldn’t have captured Hitler and destroyed his army on the day he invaded Poland? Who wouldn’t have defended the democracies in Iran and Guatemala in the ‘50s? Who wouldn’t have ended the blockade of Cuba and freed the people of Vietnam in the ‘60s? Who wouldn’t have stopped the massacres of the Timorese in the ‘70s? Who wouldn’t have helped the Afghans defeat religious terrorists or protected the Salvadorans from the Contras in the ‘80s? Who wouldn’t have made a world where wealth was shared and no one suffered?
He heard a siren’s approach and stopped. The RoboThugs of the Iron Imperialist had made that same shrill sound to terrify the people, but this was only a police car on a late-night call. He considered waving and asking if he could ride with them. Even a moment in the back of a warm car would revive him. If he was very lucky, they would let him sleep in a cell. But if he was very unlucky, they would insult him and beat him and laugh as they left him. The cold creeping through his body told him to take the risk.
He waved, but the car did not slow as it raced by. Perhaps they never saw him. He hoped their siren meant someone would get help tonight.
He made himself walk another block. Did the numbness in his legs make the pain in his hip worse? Passing an alley, he saw a dumpster and hesitated. Maybe there would be a tarp or a blanket inside, something he could wrap around himself as he walked.
But when he pushed the top open, he only saw garbage bags and flattened cardboard boxes. He sighed, looked again at the empty street, and knew he needed to rest. How many times had he fought the Martian Meritocrat and won after resting and returning to fight again? There was no shame in resting. Taking time to restore your strength was how you won.
His arms and legs were so weak that he feared they would fail him, but he pushed himself as hard as he had when the whole Earth depended on him, and he tumbled into the dumpster. It did not smell. That was another mercy, his third of the evening. He smiled as he burrowed under the cardboard. He was making a den, a tiny version of his Subsea Retreat, a quiet place surrounded by cold where he could prepare for the next battle to save the people of the planet he loved most.
Was the Ticker Tape Man watching him now? This was not the greatest indignity he had suffered on this cruel mirror Earth. “You will never win,” he whispered. “Never.”
He was close to sleep when he heard voices nearby. He could call for help, but he did not know if he wanted it. He had slept through many cold nights in worse places. He would sleep through another.
Then he heard one voice clearly.
“Red Marvel!” she called. “You are needed!”
His strength returned, filling his body with a warmth that was almost more painful than the cold. He flexed his limbs, and the dumpster exploded away from him, and his filthy clothes fell in tatters as he flew upward in his red and gold uniform, and the Dream Mobile was speeding down from the sky with Mr. Sandman at the wheel, and Universal Girl was beside him, and the Blue Amazon was smiling and crying as she reached out for him, and speeding ahead of the others, flying into his arms to lick his face, came Laika the CosmoDog.
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